Saturday, April 13

Expect no magic without a magician

It cannot be overstated how much of a blow it was to the Warriors to have Shaun Johnson ruled out through injury for the Panthers clash last weekend. If you’re one of those positive pansies running around claiming that it’s a team sport and one player doesn’t define the outcome, all good. But just know, your ignorance is painfully cringe.

Let me explain.

Yes, the Warriors are a team. Yep, rugby league is a team sport. You’re right, no one player can win the game on their own. However, and hear me out… a team is the sum of its parts. And the sum total of those parts is significantly diminished if a player who has been consistently integral to how the team chooses and executes the best options is not playing.

In the NRL where games often come down to a simple momentum shift or moment of brilliance, that player becomes the difference, particularly if it’s a playmaker and your main kicking option. Look how the Warriors went without Johnson.  But given how the ‘team’ played against the Panthers, his presence arguably may have made little difference.

However, should Johnson be ruled out this weekend against the Knights… then the Warriors are in big, big trouble. The only saving grace is the Knights don’t have Nathan Cleary.

Addin Fonua-Blake and Shaun Johnson are primarily the most important and influential players in the Warrior’s team – an argument could be made for Captain Harris and a few other players who make a significant impact, but if you remove either of these two players, the Warriors cannot perform at the same level they have been all season. There’s no one in the team that can replace their ability – no genuine backup for either Johnson or Fonua-Blake that can perform to anywhere near the same level. Bunty Afoa is underperforming, and Barnett is in his first year as a prop. With Metcalfe also injured and Ronald Volkman having proven he’s defensively unsound, coach Webster was forced to push Te Marie Martin into Johnson’s shoes and play Dylan Walker in Martin’s usual position. Both were admirable though Walker’s defense was very uncharacteristic, missing nine tackles and a few errors. But both were woefully unable to fill Johnson’s boots on attack and in kicking duties. And because of this, it nullified Fonua-Blake’s influence on the game.

Why does this matter?

Johnson’s kicks provide distance or height. In doing so, he forces the opposition back into their 10 metres zone or provides the Warriors chasers more time to reach them. This often ensures the opposition back three are starting sets deep inside their 20-metre zone, and under pressure to catch the ball. Plus, their forwards have to make extra effort to get back on side and hit the ball up, which causes fatigue, opens up the game, and allows for a higher chance of errors being made by tired players. And it means when they kick the ball on their 5th tackle, they’re doing it from inside their own half, meaning Charnze Nicol-Klokstad isn’t under pressure to receive and return the ball and start the Warriors set outside his own 20 metres zone. In doing so, it allows Fonua-Blake less distance to travel, before applying one of his trademark runs to drive the Warrior’s close or into opposition territory. The two go hand in hand.

If you watched the game between the Warriors and Panther’s you’ll notice Cleary owned the kicking game, whereas the Warriors struggled to apply any kick pressure. And all this piled pressure on Addin Fonua-Blake who couldn’t apply his strengths. When the Warriors finally did manage to apply field position pressure on the Panthers, they let them off the hook with poor discipline gifting them penalties to get out of their danger zone. But the Warriors simply couldn’t apply pressure because they had no one with a kicking game that could match Cleary’s. And that’s mostly where the game was won and lost once the accumulative effects of this were compounded. The Warriors discipline and 14 errors were awful and it’s contentious as to whether Johnson’s presence would have had much of an impact on the result with that type of carry-on. But he would have had some. Why?

Johnson is a lock-in for the Daly M halfback of the year and possibly Daly M Player of the season across all positions. He had the most kick metres of any player in the NRL this season. He’s up there for try assists. He has just over 250 games of experience in the halves. I could go on and mention other impressive stats he’s compiled this season. The point is, you simply can’t replace that with Dylan Walker and expect the same result – especially when the other side are the two-time champions boasting Nathan Cleary who will eventually become one of the immortals of the game.

However, should Johnson be available to play against the Knights this weekend, the Warriors have another headache. Johnson’s two-week break will mean he may be a little rusty. How do we know this? History.

The key to Johnson’s resurgence hasn’t just been Andrew Webster surrounding Johnson with options, but Johnson’s ability to remain relatively injury-free and build good form. Previously, Johnson would be in and out of the side due to ongoing injuries. This consistently stalled any momentum to develop good form and fluency with the options around him. He would build nicely for a few games, start looking solid and then pick up another injury that saw him in the coach’s box for a few games. This is the first season in recent memory he’s played all games, and his form is reflected in that. However, he’s clearly been hampered in the latter part of the season by a leg injury that he’s carried. And now, he’s missed two games and will no doubt be carrying injuries into Saturday’s do-or-die clash. He won’t be the same player we saw orchestrate a comeback or demolition against Cronulla. And two weeks away from the park and thrown into sudden death finals is a lot to ask anyone. Yet, the Warriors are better off with Johnson at 80% coming back after two weeks, than playing Walker there, if only for his kicking game and ability to manage the backline and attack options. Walker looked lost and out of his depth.

Yes, it’s a team sport. But remove your best and most influential player from the team without being able to replace him with a solid option (and the other team have a superstar), then the effectiveness of that team is dramatically reduced. If Johnson cannot take the field this week against the Knights, they will likely lose unless they can find a player that can match Hastings’s kicking game. They had no one that could match Cleary. Volkman is an option but has been exposed defensively and is so far fairly one-dimensional and predictable. Hopefully this weekend, we get to see Johnson and Ponga play and put on a show. No matter how they line up, this is going to be an epic encounter. But should it be without Shaun Johnson, then advantage goes to the Knights.